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BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) – The world championships of cyclocross, which kick off on Saturday, will return to Belgium for the first time since 2007. And with reports of some 40,000 tickets to the two-day event in the coastal town of Koksijde already sold, the country seems to be living up to its reputation for rabid cyclocross fandom.
In Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern region, cyclocross’s populist appeal means that ‘cross fans probably have more in common with NASCAR fans than their skinsuit-clad, cowbell-ringing cousins on the sidelines at American cyclocross races. Millions tune in to TV coverage, and tens of thousands turn out to cheer on their favorites in person, braving miserable weather and shoe-sucking mud for just a brief glimpse of stars like Sven Nys and Bart Wellens.
And like American NASCAR fans, Belgian ‘cross fans are zealously devoted to their favorite renners (racers). Fans frequently arrive at races fully bedecked in gear emblazoned with the logos of their favorite racer’s supporters club, and argue — not always politely — about just which Belgian racer is the greatest.
Lines of partisanship are often drawn geographically, with those from northern towns dividing support between Kevin Pauwels, Bart Aernouts, Tom Meeusen, and Czech Zdenek Stybar, who lives in Essen, Belgium, and has earned adopted Belgian status in the eyes of many cyclocross fans. Fans a few kilometers south might support Bart Wellens, who lives not far from Antwerp, while those in West Flanders line up behind local Klaas Vantornout. And Sven Nys and Niels Albert, whose homes in neighboring villages, Baal and Tremelo, are barely separated by a kilometer, have divided households in the central Belgian province of Flemish Brabant against their own.
So it is little surprise that the buildup to the first world championships in Belgium in half a decade has been relentless. Huge numbers have been tuning into De Flandriens van het veld, a documentary series chronicling Flemish exploits in cyclocross since Eric De Vlaeminck’s first of seven world titles in 1966 that airs on Flanders’ regional TV network Canvas. Meanwhile, disputes between riders vying for one of seven highly coveted slots on the Belgium’s Worlds team have been increasingly loud and increasingly public.
Drama reached a fever pitch when superstar Sven Nys called out worlds team coach Rudy De Bie for not naming his teammate Sven Vanthourenhout to one of the slots, saying De Bie had compromised Belgium’s chances at a title by passing up a loyal domestique in favor of riders with better results but no real chance for victory.
The buildup to worlds has not been just pure hype; fans got a rare sneak preview of the main event when the third round of the UCI World Cup visited the sand dunes of Koksijde at the end of November.
For the first time in many years, racers got to test their legs on the worlds course in a real race just a few short months before the main event. And sparks flew then as well, largely over accusations that winner Sven Nys put rival Kevin Pauwels into the barriers during the final sprint of the race. Pauwels and his team, Sunweb-Revor, unsuccessfully petitioned the officials to disqualify Nys and a war of words followed in subsequent days.
So look for sparks to fly again when the world of cyclocross makes its return to the Belgian coast. On Friday VeloNews.com will take a look at the riders’ last-minute preparations for the big event and assess how both Belgium’s rapidly changing weather and Koksijde’s shifting sands might affect the weekend’s outcome.
Belgian fans’ devotion to cyclocross has been rewarded — and stoked — by a decade and a half of almost complete domination of international competition by Belgian riders, at least on the men’s side. Not since 1997 has at least one Belgian man failed to make the podium in a world championship race and Belgian men have claimed a whopping 30 of the 42 possible podium places since Mario De Clercq restored Belgian supremacy with a dramatic solo win on another seaside race in Middelfart, Denmark, in 1998. Since then, Belgian men have also claimed 10 out of 14 rainbow jerseys.
But despite the domination, since 2008 only one Belgian man, Albert, has won at Worlds, and the past two years have belonged to Stybar. So count on the seven-man Belgian contingent to do everything possible to deliver a countryman to the top step of the podium on home soil.
With veteran and former two-time champion, Wellens, sidelined for the rest of the season following a major health scare just ahead of the national championship race earlier this month, the Belgians will field a relatively young team on Sunday; only national champion Nys is over 30. And on a sandy and very technical course in Koksijde, his experience may make all the difference.
Part II of the cyclocross world championships preview: Which men to watch
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